By Sherrie Li
By Falling James
By Amanda Lewis
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By Amy Nicholson
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By Sherrie Li
That’s because Columbo is fascinating also as a class-conscious murder mystery, although the creators claim nothing political in their intentions. The whole idea was aesthetic contrast: pearls with swine. Levinson and Link always joked that they never could have cast Jack Klugman as a murderer because he was an icon of slobbiness like Falk. The gimmick worked only with rich snobs — your Robert Vaughns, George Hamiltons — who would leap to underestimate their seemingly absent-minded pursuer, sometimes even after they’ve caught on to the disarming anecdotes and well-placed flattery. The aforementioned Cassidy and Culp were the series’ ace villains — each starring in three episodes, but each at his best in this first-season set — the former an oily satyr with a sneer you could patent and a deliciously insincere baritone, and the latter an actor so good at barely controlled, patronizing vehemence, he should be cast as Donald Rumsfeld immediately.
Worth mentioning also are some of the great writers the show had: Jackson Gillis, represented on the first-season DVD by the excellent “Suitable for Framing,” featuring one of the best final-frame gotchas of the whole series, Peter S. Fischer (who would go on to create Murder, She Wrote) and Larry Cohen. Another fun side note to subsequent seasons are the appearances of the John Cassavetes posse, Falk having appeared in the director’s 1970 film, Husbands, between the Columbopilot movies and the start of the series. Cassavetes’ adulterous conductor ratchets up the cat-and-mouse stuff wonderfully in the second-season opener, “Etude in Black” (written by Bochco); Gena Rowlands showed up in season four; and Ben Gazzara directed a few, notably the highly entertaining “A Friend in Deed,” with Richard Kiley as a conniving deputy police commissioner.
The show ran out of steam in the late ’70s with weak plotting and increasingly outlandish villain professions — Ricardo Montalban’s egotistical bullfighter was especially far-fetched — and eventually ended in 1978 after 45 episodes. In 1989, ABC revived the character and has been making two-hour movies ever since, but in tone and flavor they couldn’t match the quiet, almost deadpan funkiness of the originals, which now trade heavily on their ’70s-era stylistic otherworldliness.
Columbo may have invented the quirky central cop for TV, but it’s been hard to find a show since that has duplicated its particular alchemy of eccentricity and reverse-mystery structure in our current Law & Order/CSI universe. Right now, the intricacies of law and forensic science and especially “ripped from the headlines” stories rule over memorable character work. Tony Shalhoub’s obsessive-compulsive puzzle solver on the USA Network’s Monk is an admirable misfit, but his tics aren’t an affect or intentional trap for the bad guys: We’re supposed to feel a little sorry for him. The closest homage to Falk’s sneaky sleuth on the tube these days is Vincent D’Onofrio’s oddball Bobby Goren on Law & Order: Criminal Intent, who also mixes behavioral sleuthing with an insinuating, is-he-kidding?manner. But Goren’s interrogative technique is ultimately closer to hostile intervention therapy than Lieutenant Columbo’s subtle circling. I love Criminal Intent, but in the end it’s the cop-criminal matchup as a slamdance. With Columbo, you get a waltz.
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